Friday, December 5, 2008


A troubling story out of Olympia, Washington highlights one of the real disappointing aspects of American culture and politics today.

In protest of a nativity scene on Capitol grounds, atheists in Olympia, Washington, put up an obnoxious sign celebrating the winter solstice and actively dumping on the religion of every single person who does not believe what they do. As you can read, the sign celebrates the winter solstice (Fine, you want to celebrate a winter holiday, that's OK with The Common Man, though it should probably be pointed out that the solstice was used as a holiday for early religions for countless years before you decided it was a secular day.), while calling religion "myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." Dan Barker, the founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (who put up the sign), despite his sign's cartoonishly ridiculous hyperbole, said "It's not that we are trying to coerce anyone; in a way our sign is a signal of protest. If there can be a Nativity scene saying that we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus, we should be at the table to share our views." Later, he commented, "When people ask us, 'Why are you hateful? Why are you putting up something critical of people's holidays? -- we respond that we kind of feel that the Christian message is the hate message. On that Nativity scene, there is this threat of internal violence if we don't submit to that master. Hate speech goes both ways." Reports indicate that, amazingly, he said this without a hint of irony. There is a threat of internal violence emenating from every single depiction of a cute little baby boy lying in a manger with his mother, father/Joseph, and ox and sheep. That ox, man, he's an intimidating bastard.

Look, The Common Man has no problem with atheists. He does not understand them, as he thinks atheism is the antithesis of logical thought, but he hopes that atheists would provide him the same respect for choosing to be Catholic as he has for their beliefs (or non-beliefs). But often today, The Common Man has been befuddled by the growing phenomenon of evangelized atheists, who see it as their mission to spread their non-religion as obnoxiously as possible. Christopher Hitchens, of course, is the most visible face of this movement, but Barker and his organization appear to be fighting the same battle, using the same in-your-face, belittling, and, frankly, mean tactics. It's not that religions themselves have not been guilty of the same behavior in the past (and present), just that it is sad to see any group casually and cruelly dismiss the beliefs of another.

The story of the atheist sign, however, continues, as it was stolen from the Legislative Building less than an hour after it was put up. After some time, it was found in a ditch and dropped off at a local radio station. There is no word, of course, about the religious views of the thief (though The Common Man is sure you can guess) who violated the eighth comandment, but this kind of childish display is just as bad as the taunting of the atheists, and only does nothing to soften the debate.

Two weeks ago, Nate Silver at wrote that he thought Republicans lost the election this year because, in part, they have forgotten how to persuade. The rise of talk radio, according to Silver, has fooled conservatives into believing that stimulation is the same as persuasion, "almost uniquely to radio, most of the audience is not even paying attention to you, because most people listen to radio when they're in the process of doing something else. (If they weren't doing something else, they'd be watching TV). They are driving, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes -- and you have to work really hard to sustain their attention. Hence what [David Foster] Wallace refers to as the importance of "stimulating" the listener." Silver goes on to argue that the McCain campaign focused on stimulation rather than persuasion, mistaking creating a spectacle for converting hearts and minds.

Silver's theory certainly sounds plausible to The Common Man, but The Common Man would humbly suggest that conservatives are not the only group who has forgotten how to persuade. Indeed, Americans seem to have become so enamoured of the shrill, incoherent simultaneous back-and-forth that they hear on radio and see on television that they have begun to accept provoking a response to be the same thing as persuading an audience to agree with their position. Persuasion is a manly art, one that seems to be rapidly wasting away. The Common Man hopes that the recent success by the Obama campaign to win over reluctant voters inspires other groups to attempt dialogue, rather than shallow, showy, but ultimately counter-productive displays like the ones above.


ObnoxiousBikeMonkey said...

But let us be fair, eh? The number and profile of obnoxious atheists is still several orders of magnitude behind obnoxious, in da face religious figures.

Do you know Thomas robeys blog?

The Common Man said...

Your point is irrelevent, Bikemonkey, and fairness does not enter into it. Bad behavior is bad behavior regardless of who perpetrates it, and how often they do so. The Common Man has been happy to point out the idiocy of Christians and Christianity in the past, and will continue to do so. And he specifically mentioned that religions have been guilty of the exact same behavior in the past in his post. Frankly, pointing fingers and saying "but they're doing it too!" sounds an awful lot like unmanly whining and deflecting responsibility from where it belongs. He expects better than that from The Boy, let alone adults.

The Common Man said...

And not to harp on this subject further, but if you are serious about moving a progressive agenda forward, it seems to The Common Man that multiple viewpoints must be respected and engaged in dialogue. Otherwise you are replacing one closed-minded philosophy for another.

BikeMonkey said...

um, you are the one defending the stealing of a legally permissible sign because the content of the sign is objectionable to you. and similarly you seem to be objecting to the placement of the sign smack dab in the nativity scene dialog.

to argue that the nativity scene is merely a cute tableau and not part of the larger debate is disingenuous in the extreme. Just like the stars-n-bars and nazi flags are not merely interesting looking visual patterns, the nativity scene placed on public property has meaning my friend. It is a symbol and a statement. A statement that, much as you seem to miss this, is even more offensive, rude and impolite to some than you seem to find that atheist sign to be.

The Common Man said...

You have misread The Common Man's argument, BikeMonkey. In fact, he specifically condemned the idiot(s) who stole the sign, calling its theft a "childish display [that] is just as bad as the taunting of the atheists, and...does nothing to soften the debate" and a "shallow, showy, but ultimately counter-productive display." Indeed, The Common Man believes that the atheist organization had every right to post its sign, and should in no way have to deal with insecure jackasses stealing it.

But believing that a message is permissable and believing a message is in good taste are two completely different positions. The Common Man thinks the message is in terribly poor taste and would love the opportunity to discuss it with its originators.

And of course the nativity is not a "cute tableau" devoid of meaning. If it were devoid of meaning, there would be no reason to display it in the first place. The Common Man does not believe the nativity belongs on public property, but as long as it is there, he believes it important for other viewpoints (including those of the Foundation for Religious Freedom) to be represented as well. Regrettably, the message this group chose is deliberately obnoxious and petulant. That message does nothing to civilize the discourse, and further a progressive agenda in which a multiplicity of viewpoints are respected.

BikeMonkey said...

While we can go through the exact text from the start with "obnoxious" to the "cartoonishly" to..."that ox" to ... it is typical that we will not advance any farther than your intent of what your wrote being one thing and my perception being something else.

It is worth, however, making the attempt in response to

it is sad to see any group casually and cruelly dismiss the beliefs of another.

Yes. It is indeed. Have you internalized this? You appear to be in favor of placing religious symbols on public and governmental property, do I have this correct? Do you not feel that this is a casual and cruel dismissal of not just atheists but even the theologically inclined who likewise believe very strongly in our secular basis of government?

The Common Man said...

Bikemonkey, It is absolutely true that The Common Man's intent and your perception of what he was saying are entirely different, and The Common Man accepts no responsibility for that, particularly when he specifically wrote "The Common Man does not believe the nativity belongs on public property, but as long as it is there, he believes it important for other viewpoints (including those of the Foundation for Religious Freedom) to be represented as well."

And the argument that "hey, some religious people are assholes so it's ok if I'm an asshole too" holds absolutely no water. Everyone should be held to a higher standard. When you are wrong, you are wrong, and The Common Man will call you out regardless of your religious beliefs.

The Common Man's larger point, with which you have not engaged, was that public discourse in America has been degraded, neither antagonistic signs nor stealing antagonistic signs do anything to elevate that discourse.

BikeMonkey said...

That's because there is no profit in pointing out for the umpteenth time that hand wringing over civility of discourse from the dominant and currently winning perspective is nothing but a cynical tool. See civil rights. See womens suffrage. See worker protections. Etc. This is really the main thesis here? Style of discourse? Or are you just bashing atheists for their extreme wing while minimizing the extreme christers?

The Common Man said...

King of hyperbole, thy name is Bikemonkey. Why stop at comparing this cause to the civil rights movement, the fight for gender equality, and workers' rights? Aren't atheists oppressed like the Jews of Poland as well?

Meanwhile, back in reality, you're talking about a group being persecuted (are they being persecuted?) for their beliefs. Well, no one should be persecuted on the basis of what they belive, but all beliefs are not created equally in the marketplace of ideas, which is why we laugh at members of the Flat Earth Society (think how oppressed those poor bastards are). Beliefs should be respected, and discussed, and debated. And The Common Man believes, like Martin Luther King believed, that dialogue and reasoned debate are the most effective means of persuasion.

Anyway, as you noticed just before Thanksgiving, The Common Man called out a priest who idiotically told his parishioners they had committed a sin if they voted for Barack Obama (which means The Common Man has a date with the confession booth this Saturday), and he will continue to do so. Your forgetful (or disingenuous) claims that The Common Man refrains from criticizing nutjobs on his side of the pew is simply wrong. The Common Man has also criticized extreme hindus in his blog, and will undoubtedly get around to criticizing extreme Jews and Muslims too (though he has defended New York Muslims and their subway ad campaign in the past). But not the Dalai Lama. That dude is cool as shit, and too cute to make fun of.

The Common Man said...

And finally, The Common Man respects any atheist's beliefs, They are welcome to them, and to share them. And The Common Man is confident that he has not, in this post or anywhere else, written anything critical of the central premise of atheism. The Common Man disagrees with that central premise, but would be happy to discuss those beliefs in a frank and civil exchange.

Erasmus said...

The Common Man is missing the true irony here. The freedom from religion group is in fact an atheist group. They are themselves a defacto religion as the BELIEVE there is no god. Their signage clearly puts forth their religious point of view.

Now, if they were an AGNOSTIC group and truly for freedom from religion, their sign next to the nativity scene would read "Or not, no one really knows". :)

Pain Man said...

most agnostics leave religious people alone for the most part. we get a little nervous when there's another religion-inspired suicide bombing or religion-funded victory of a state proposal denying human rights.

when the (what we believe is) ignorance directly impacts our lives, we get a bit defensive. or offensive.

then we go back to understanding that most religious people are of the innocent, cafeteria sort. the others ones have blown themselves up.

The Common Man said...

@ Erasmus

Indeed, the fervor, enthusiasm, and certainty of the atheist crowd does suggest a religious zeal, as does their certainty and mocking of faiths different from their own and their recent evangelism. Congratulations, extreme-Atheists, you are playing with the big boys.

@ Pain Man

The Common Man has a great deal of respect for anyone who will stand up and say that he or she does not know the answer to a question, but that they would like to find out. That's what intellectual curiosity is, and it should be lauded in all its forms. The Common Man, by the way, is not sure his beliefs are right, but he thinks the God and Jesus hypothesis is the right one.

Ged said...


Just to be clear here. An agnostic is someone who believes that that god exists but does not believe it is possible to know the mind of god (i.e. not a gnostic).

An atheist is someone who does not have a belief in god (i.e. not a theist). Lack of belief in god is not the same thing as a belief that god does not exist. The former implies doubt while the latter implies certainty.

MattK said...

I have heard that definition of 'agnostic' before. However it has been used in the colloquial meaning at least since T.H. Huxley used it in that way. All else being equal, I'll defer to Huxley.